Tag Archives: Feminism

Gospel and culture: The inspiration of Wonder Woman and the disappointment of its postscript

It was a real joy to participate in Tabor’s inaugural Theologiconconference a couple of weeks ago, presenting a session on Wonder Woman. We had a great day talking about the intersections between pop culture and the gospel and looking at how the media we engage with both reflects and shapes the world around us. While I am basically an outsider to the ‘Comicon’ crowd, I think this was a useful position from which to analyse the movie and in particular to consider the connection points between its story and the gospel story, as well as why it resonated so strongly with many women in our culture.

Wonder Woman is ultimately a story about grace.

The film’s climactic moment comes when Diana realises the falsity of the key assumption she has made – an assumption which is the conventionally accepted wisdom of our day – that humanity at its heart is good. She sees the darkness and hatred within humanity and realises that they don’t deserve her help or her love. But she chooses to give it anyway. That’s grace. It’s an echo of the best story ever told, the good news of an incarnate God who recognises our brokenness and undeservedness but chooses to redeem us anyway because of his great love.

It’s also worth considering why this particular iteration of Wonder Woman was so popular and seemed to speak so powerfully to many women. I heard numerous comments from friends and students along the lines of “Now I understand why guys like superhero movies so much!” A wide array of memes on social media showed similar resonances.

At Theologicon, I suggested that in a world where male characters continue to make up over 70% of characters on screen in popular films and speak more than twice as often as their female characters, where women’s roles are trivialised and overtly sexualised, Wonder Woman was both a breath of fresh air and a powerful statement. I think it tapped into the frustrations and desires of many women in this cultural context and spoke in particular about how they wish they were seen more often.

Diana Prince in 2017’s Wonder Woman is both empowered and empowering. She is heroic, brave and strong. She is the protagonist of her own story, but the men surrounding her do not appear threatened or emasculated by her. She is portrayed as clearly feminine and yet not overly sexualised. She is emotionally vulnerable, idealistic, perhaps even naïve, and her greatest strengths lie in her compassion, her love and her hope. She upends the assumptions that a parade of men make about her to ensure that she is fully heard and seen. She fires up our imagination of what a girl can be.

I proposed that something in this movie crystallised a wider cultural moment that many women are experiencing. In a world of #YesallWomen and #Metoo and an industry of the likes of Weinstein and Cosby, it felt like part of the reclaiming of women’s voices and experiences, not to privilege them above those of men, but to put them alongside as equally valuable as well as uniquely contributive.

And I think this brings a challenge to the church, which unfortunately has a reputation in this area that is not that dissimilar to the overall reputation of most superhero movies. That is, a reputation of assigning women a second-class status and a subordinate role. Of telling its story predominantly through the voices and perspectives of men. Of failing to inspire imagination in women of all they are created and called to be. This greatly saddens me because it is not the way the Bible or the gospel presents women, who are invited to be co-heirs with Christ and participants in the co-creating work of God.

I want to continue challenging the church to inspire this kind of imagination in our women and girls alongside our men and boys.

So obviously my review of the movie was pretty positive. I’m currently writing up my session on Wonder Woman into some kind of academic paper (!) and so will continue to ponder some of these thoughts further.

But for all my positivity, my pop-culture analysis experience comes with a frustrating and disappointing postscript. Some of the DC fans who attended my session asked me afterwards if I was planning to see Justice League, the new EDCU movie in which Wonder Woman is a key character. I hadn’t previously thought about it, but in answering their questions, discovered that my genuine answer was yes. I had found Wonder Woman engaging enough to go see the follow up, no doubt fulfilling the hopes of the movie’s producers and marketers of drawing a new consumer cohort to their ongoing enterprise.

So last weekend I saw Justice League and all I can do is sigh. Two steps forward, five steps back.

I lost count of the number of camera shots that went up Wonder Woman’s skirt or zoomed in on her butt. I was irritated and disturbed by the sexualisation of both Diana and her entire tribe in the costuming choices made for them. I rolled my eyes at the objectifying way that every other character in the movie relates to Diana. And I lamented the lack of any other female leads, as if one out of six is somehow equality.

Many others have commented on the differences between the two movies, and in particular the gender of their respective directors and the deflating impact of storytelling this particular character via the male gaze. If Wonder Woman tapped into the hopes for how women would like to be portrayed, Justice League felt like it mansplained them to put them back into their usual Hollywood blockbuster place. Sorry DC, but I think you might just have lost me.

Fortunately, the much bigger story that I’m far more interested in how we tell has an abundantly better postscript. The forthcoming instalment of the gospel story is one in which all things are set right once and for all. Where our imagination of all we can be finds expression in the complete realisation of all our hopes for reconciled relationships between women, men, God and all of creation. Where ultimate grace and justice triumph. No disappointments there.

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The privilege of experiencing “un-privilege”

I had an experience when I was in an African country last November that I have wanted to write about ever since, but it is one that I have struggled both to fully understand and to articulate.

In some of the churches we visited, men and women sit on separate sides of the room during a Sunday service. We, however, as honoured [white] guests, were often seated separately from both men and women, in the “best” seats at the front or on the side.

This Sunday, as the only white woman present, I wanted to sit with the other women in the congregation. But what actually happened was that when I sat on the women’s side, none of the local women sat with or near me. In fact, as the church filled up, it soon became glaringly obvious that despite the packed house, there was a circle with a radius of at least two metres between me and anyone else.

I felt incredibly isolated. I also felt an overwhelming mixture of frustration, anger, and sadness, which I struggled to contain. At the time, I couldn’t pinpoint who or what I was angry about, or exactly what made me feel so disconsolate.

After returning home and reflecting on the experience, I have come to the conclusion that I was simultaneously experiencing both privilege and what I will call (for want of a better term) “un-privilege.” As a white person, I was given elevated status, to the point that the other women did not feel that it was acceptable for them to sit with me. But as a woman, I did not have the status that would make it acceptable for me to sit with the men.

Now, let me say that I categorically do not wish to make any value judgments about the people I was worshipping with. About the only thing I can probably be certain of is that they were not experiencing this event the same way I was. But I do want to learn from and share about what I experienced in that moment, from my perspective.

The idea of “privilege” is one I know not everyone is comfortable with, but it has become a helpful shorthand expression for something that is very common in our world. Basically, it refers to the advantages that a group of people have due to their social status. As this status is conferred by society, it is not something that is chosen, and it can often be something very difficult for those who experience it to recognise.

Experiencing the world as a white person means I experience privilege. It means that I do not understand what it means to be disadvantaged because of the colour of my skin, and that often I am not even aware that there is any advantage or disadvantage based on skin colour. But when I listen to my friends and neighbours who experience the world every day as “people of colour” (a term that itself reeks of privilege – as if those of us who are white are “without” colour!), I realise that they face many subtle and not so subtle reminders every day that it matters what they are not.

I also experience privilege because I am educated, wealthy, heterosexual.

However, on the other hand, experiencing the world as a woman means that I experience “un-privilege.” I recognise every day that there are ways I am spoken to and spoken about, ways that I am looked at and overlooked, ways that I am valued and evaluated, that are not experienced by men.

Maths

So, why was my experience in Africa so confronting? From my perspective, something about that simultaneous experience of both privilege and un-privilege clarified things. I felt both the miserable isolation of not having the same status as the men, as well as the humbling shame of being given a status above the other women that I had done nothing to deserve.

And I think it was that shame which provoked my deepest anger, frustration and despair. The shame that reminds me that I can go through life so oblivious. To not even know that by what I assume to be my “neutral” experience I am actually both being advantaged and therefore causing others to be disadvantaged. That unless I somehow enter into the experience of those who are not like me, and try in some way to feel what un-privilege is like, I will never understand my own privilege. And so I am grateful for my experience in that church. It was confronting but in a way that I needed to be confronted. It was a privilege in the other sense of the word – a humbling gift and a source of true pleasure.

A good friend of mine was recently the only male participant in a room full of people discussing the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated profession. He reflected afterwards on his desire to apologise as he recognised that even he, who is a gracious and forthright advocate for women’s participation in our profession, so often did not even see how the ways he spoke and acted could perpetuate the disadvantage that women experience. I felt so grateful that he was able to have that experience. I know that he will be able to make a greater difference because of it. That like me in Africa, his confrontation with the realities of un-privilege was a gift and an honour he will not scorn.

Finally, I am reminded of one of the most profound truths of the Christian faith. Incarnation. The fact that the God who had all the status and privilege in the universe chose to fully enter into the un-privilege of humanity. And the incredible wonder is, that He counted it a true privilege to do so.

Misogyny, bravery, hashtags, and speaking up (a follow up to #YesAllWomen)

I’ve been a little bit overwhelmed by the response to my recent blog post asking how the church can respond to #YesAllWomen.

For starters, a number of people called me “brave,” which while I can understand and appreciate, hasn’t sat very well with me. I guess ultimately because it saddens me that I live in a culture where naming the reality of this experience is rare enough, and can bring enough negative response, that to do so is considered courageous.

I’ve had the opportunity to reflect further on why this is, and I recognise that I am part of the problem. When experiences like I named in my post happen, whether to me or to others, I still tend to respond to them as if they are anomalies, one-offs. Perhaps I don’t say anything because I wilfully forget that they are happening all around me, often to women much younger than I who have much less influence and ability to speak up about it.

My awareness has been raised to the point that I have thought through what I am going to say when (not if) I am in a situation where a woman or girl is being touched or spoken to inappropriately. No more looking back and thinking “I wish I had said something,” or “I was so shocked I didn’t think quickly enough to say something.”

I am so grateful for the incredibly positive responses I have had to my post. What has been particularly pleasing is the way this conversation has been picked up offline in a number of ways. It’s easy to be “outraged” on the internet, and some question the value of hashtags and blogs as “slacktivism” – a replacement for activism that might make us feel better, but doesn’t actually change anything. I’m hopeful that #YesAllWomen is much more. In this case, simply raising awareness is in and of itself “doing something.”

I’m grateful for all the women who have told me “I never realised it wasn’t just me,” and for all the men who have said, “I’m so shocked, how did I not know about this?” Now that we are all more aware, my hope is that next time we see something like this happening, we will all speak up. Men in particular, if you hear other men catcalling women, or making jokes about rape, please ask them to stop. If you see a woman in a situation where she looks uncomfortable, ask her, “Is this man making you uncomfortable?”

I’m incredibly humbled by the women who have shared with me their horrific stories of abuse. Given what I said above, I won’t call them “brave,” but I will call them important, honourable and gracious. 

I’m thankful too for the (male) pastors in my family of churches who have asked how we can continue this conversation into the future. While I’ve always been a little hesitant to be pigeonholed as a ‘spokesperson’ for women, if God has given me the opportunity and influence to bring this issue into the light, I am going to grab it with both hands. This is not a “women’s issue.” It is a leadership issue, a culture issue, a church issue, and a gospel issue.

Finally, I was reminded again yesterday, powerfully and publicly, why #YesAllWomen exists, and needs to exist, in the church. Christianity Today’s online Leadership Journal published a six-page article in which a convicted rapist, writing from jail, was given a platform to explain his actions – which he did by characterising his sexual abuse of a child as a “relationship,” lamenting the consequences he has faced since being caught without once taking ownership of what he had done to his victim. The article was tagged by the editors with the words “Adultery” and “Mistake.” (These have since been removed. They have not been replaced by “Rape” or “Crime.”)

[If you don’t know what I’m referring to and want to, see Tamara Rice’s excellent post].

What has been encouraging is the response of so many men and women, calling for CT to #TakeDownThatPost, another hashtag that has so far caused Leadership Journal to add a disclaimer, and then edit the article (not particularly well). I’m still hopeful they will respond by deleting it, but the conversations it has provoked among a number of high profile Christian leaders about misogyny, victim-blaming, and minimising abuse, demonstrate that when we listen to one another, when we become more aware, we learn and grow and things can change. And if it takes a hashtag to help that process along, well, God has used stranger methods.

 

Update: about an hour after I posted this, Christianity Today responded to #TakeDownThatPost by deleting the post and apologising for publishing it. So pleasing, and so good to see an internet apology that is not, “Sorry you were offended by us,” but rather, “Sorry, we did the wrong thing and we should not have.”